By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
“It’s all lies.”Dr. Helen Caldicott throws back her red-streaked blond bob, flashes her blue eyes — really, she does — and stares across the table at me as if she’s about throw a punch. “They say they’re clean, do they? Nuclear power plants? Well, let me tell you: Millions of curies of radioactive gases are released in an unregulated way every year from nuclear power plants. And isotopes into the water. And we haven’t even talked about the radioactive waste.” (A curie, by the way, differs from a rem in how it measures radiation — by the activity of the material instead of the absorbed dose. One curie is the amount of radiation given off by one gram of radium. The 12 radium dots on the old Big Ben dial at San Onofre emit three one-thousandths of a curie of radiation.)
Stewart Brand, whom Caldicott has not heard of, “doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” James Lovelock, “to use a crude Australian expression, has his head . . . somewhere. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about; I really resent him.” And Fred Krupp of Environmental Defense Fund, his fence-sitting on nuclear notwithstanding? “He’s really a front for the nuclear industry. They all have fronts. So in order to do your reporting well, you have to investigate who these people are, and what connections they have, and if they’re biologists or not. And if they’re not, just discount what they say.”
It’s true that almost all of Caldicott’s fellow firebrands who have come out in favor of nuclear power have some ties to the energy industry, be they financial or merely philosophical: Brand’s Global Business Network, for instance, secures funding via corporate members who pay $40,000 a year for a suite of services; among them are nuclear-power providers PG&E, Southern California Edison and Duke Power. GBN co-founder Peter Schwartz, who co-authored a pro-nuclear article in Wired magazine last winter, was once head of scenario planning at Royal Dutch Shell. And Lovelock serves as an informal adviser to the French-based Association des Ecologistes Pour le NuclĂ©aire (Environmentalists for Nuclear).
Yet while Krupp earns a controversial salary — over $300,000 a year according to tax records available on EDF’s Web site — there’s no evidence that he’s a “front” for anybody. He is not, however, a biologist, a physician or a geneticist, but a lawyer. Which means, spits Caldicott, he lacks all qualifications to opine about nuclear energy. “You might as well unleash him into the operating theaters and let him operate on patients. It’s as serious as that.”
On a furnace-hot day in late May outside a San Pedro theater, Caldicott awaits her turn to rally opponents of liquefied-natural-gas terminals in Long Beach. For the occasion, she is dressed in a buttonless blue suit with a fluiddrape that emphasizes the fact that she almost never stops moving. Her elegant hands flail, she shifts in her chair, she shakes her head in exasperation. Her perpetual apoplexy is charming, even lovable, but not quite likeable — a distinction I hadn’t thought to make before I met her. Like a televangelist, she expects personal admissions of sin and shame in her presence; I make sure to tell her I traveled here by public transportation, then foolishly add that I’m grateful for the air-conditioning in city buses. “But you’ve got no right to run air-conditioning,” she chides. “You’re pouring HCFCs into the atmosphere. You shouldn’t do it.”
Throughout most of the 1970s and ’80s, the Australian-born Caldicott was the center of the international anti-nuclear vortex. She wrote books, fought off the French effort to conduct atmospheric testing in the South Pacific, linked arms with Australian uranium miners who were dying of lung cancer. She has been lauded for her precisely targeted fury, but also ridiculed for her seemingly nuttier pronouncements. In the wake of the accident at Three Mile Island, Caldicott asserted that Hershey’s chocolate, made from the milk of cows that graze near the Pennsylvania plant, had been tainted with strontium-90. “We don’t know the ground measurements where the cows graze because they kept that secret,” she admits. “But I’ve been saying it for years: Don’t eat Hershey’s chocolates. They haven’t sued me. You shouldn’t eat them.”
These days, Caldicott spends 50 percent of her time raising funds for the Nuclear Policy Research Institute, a D.C.-based nonprofit dedicated to “creating consensus for a nuclear-free future.” She opposes nuclear technology in all its forms — from nuclear weapons to fission-generated electricity, it’s all the same to her. “The nuclear industry,” she says, “is a cancer industry. Nuclear power is going to induce millions of cases of cancer, particularly in children who are so radiosensitive. And it causes genetic disease, not just in humans but in other creatures. So it’s an evil industry, medically speaking.”
I remark that several credible nuclear-safety advocates I have interviewed so far, including Rochelle Becker of the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility, Michael Marriott of the Nuclear Information Resource Service (NIRS) and Dave Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned Scientists, have declined to make any proclamations about the health risks of living near nuclear power plants; the studies, say all three, are just not complete. Caldicott glares at me. “There are many studies. If they don’t know they should know. They’ve got no right not to know. Around Sellafield in Britain, which is also a reprocessing plant and a nuclear reactor, there are large clusters of cancers there. There are clusters of cancers in Wales, on the Irish Sea, which is the most polluted sea in the world, polluted by Sellafield.
“In fact,” she says agitatedly, “the literature is replete with malignancy in people who live near reactors. But because of the latent period of carcinogenesis, the incubation time for cancer is five to six years. You have to wait for a while and do a decent epidemiological study to assess what’s going on.”
In 1991, the National Cancer Institute in the U.S. conducted what might be considered a “decent epidemiological study” of deaths from 16 types of cancer, including leukemia, in 107 U.S. counties “containing or closely adjacent to 62 nuclear facilities,” all of which had been built before 1982. The survey compared cancer death rates before and after the facilities went online with similar data in 292 counties without nuclear facilities. After four years of research, the team of epidemiologists found no general increased risk of death from cancer near nuclear facilities. In some counties, the relative risk for childhood leukemia from birth through 9 years dropped a statistically insignificant few hundredths of a point after the startup of a local nuclear facility. The areas surrounding four facilities, including San Onofre, showed significantly lower rates for leukemia in teenagers compared with the rest of the country. A University of Pittsburgh study of the area within a five-mile radius of Three Mile Island showed no statistically significant increase in cancer rates 20 years after the accident at the reactor in 1979. What’s more, neither soil nor air samples in the area around Three Mile Island have been kept from the public. According to the Carter-era EPA, close to 10 percent of some 800 milk samples from local dairy farms the month after the accident showed trace amounts of radioactive contamination. But the highest concentration was still 40 times less than what showed up in milk after the fallout from Chinese nuclear testing in October 1976 that passed across the United States.
None of which placates Caldicott. “If you look at my book, Nuclear Madness, I cite many studies. But they’re not government studies, because the government doesn’t do the studies. A, they’re difficult to do. You have to wait until people actually die, and there’s a mobile population. B, it’s expensive — you have to do autopsies on all of them, and C, you have to compare them to an unexposed group, and D they don’t want to find out.”
At this point, I can only gaze across the table with a quizzical smile as Caldicott, in all her fired-up glory, rants on about all the things Americans “have no right” to do — drive cars, farm large tracts of land, spew 25 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide. “This country,” she says, “is quite obscene.” As an activist, she is magnificent. Inside the theater, she gives a speech so vivacious and funny no one seems to mind that she doesn’t have much to say about liquefied natural gas.
But she won’t talk about children with asthma in the shadow of Tennessee’s coal-firedpower plants, or whether hurricanes have grown more intense because the climate is changing, or whether it’s possible to engineer safer models of nuclear reactors.
“Listen to me,” she says. “You’re trying to balance both sides on this, and you can’t. There are no two sides to this issue. It’s like having a factory full of polio virus. And when the virus reproduces it makes heat and you turn the steam into electricity. But, by the way, millions of people might get polio. It’s exactly the same thing.
“Promise me you’ll read my book Nuclear Madness before you write your article, okay? Promise me? Because then you won’t be confused anymore. Then you’ll know.”
Look, you don’t want to go out and build a plant, spend all the money, and have the license jerked at the last minute. [Laughter.] Nobody’s going to spend money if that’s the case.